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Douglas Wilder Was Inaugurated Governor

  • Douglas Wilder Was Inaugurated Governor of Virginia, January 13, 1990
The election of Douglas Wilder, the first popularly elected African American governor in the United States, was achieved despite the hardships endured by African American voters in the twentieth century.
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    Some of the First African American Virginia State Legislators, 1871–1872
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    First Colored Senators and Representatives, 1872
  • Voter Registration in Portsmouth
    Voter Registration in Portsmouth, Virginia, September 29, 1964
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Douglas Wilder Was Inaugurated Governor of Virginia, January 13, 1990

During the first decades following ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, which enfranchised black men in the United States, most African American voters became Republicans because the Republican Party was the party of Lincoln and it was the party that appealed to freedmen for support. In Virginia, two dozen African American members of the Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868 helped create the state's first free public school system and on October 8, 1869, voted to ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States to guarantee full citizenship rights for African Americans and prohibit states from denying them those rights, including the right to vote. Between 1869 and the 1890s about a hundred African American men served in the General Assembly of Virginia.

Opposition to conspicuous and influential participation of African Americans in politics and to the policies of the state and national Republican Parties was the principal motivation of white Democrats who sought the means to reduce the influence of blacks in politics and make it more difficult for Republican candidates to win elections. Following the collapse of the biracial Republican-Readjuster coalition in the mid-1880s, Democratic majorities in the General Assembly revised the election laws to place control of voting in the hands of local election officials appointed by judges that the Democrats in the General Assembly elected. Corruption, intimidation, violence, and shameful fraud gradually reduced the influence and also the number of African American voters in Virginia as well as the number of Republicans in the state who could vote. The campaign for Democratic white supremacy concluded with the Constitutional Convention of 1901–1902, which effectively disenfranchised about 90 percent of all of the African Americans who still voted and also reduced by about 50 percent the number of white men who could register and vote in Virginia. The same thing happened during the years immediately before and after that in the other southern states.

Between 1902 and 1945 almost no African Americans won election to any local offices in Virginia and none even ran for the General Assembly. During that time, the state's Republican Party ceased appealing to the small number of African American voters for support, and the policies of national Democratic Party leaders such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman gradually drew many southern black voters into the Democratic Party, in spite of the Democratic Party's historic efforts to exclude black voting and black office-holding in the South.

After World War II, several African American men won election to local offices, and in 1967 William Ferguson Reid, of Richmond, won election to the House of Delegates. Thereafter, because of passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the abolition of the poll tax through constitutional amendment and federal court decisions, African Americans found it less difficult to register and vote, and other men and women won election to local offices and to the two houses of the General Assembly. Lawrence Douglas Wilder, a Richmond attorney, won election in a special election in 1969 to the Senate of Virginia, the first African American member of the state senate in the twentieth century. He won election as lieutenant governor of Virginia in 1985 and in 1989 was the first African American in the United States to win election as governor of a state.

While Governor Wilder was the first African American to be elected governor in the United States, he was not the first black person to serve as governor in the nation's history. That distinction goes to P. B. S. Pinchback, who as lieutenant governor of Louisiana, was temporarily elevated to the office of governor in 1872. Since Governor Wilder's term in office, other African American politicians have won gubernatorial elections in the United States. On November 7, 2006, Deval Patrick became the second African American governor to be elected in the history of the United States when he was sworn in as the seventy-first governor of Massachusetts. In 2008, David Patterson became the fifty-fifth governor of New York and the fourth African American in the nation's history to serve as governor, when he took the seat vacated by former governor Eliot Spitzer.

For Educators

Questions

1. Who is Lawrence Douglas Wilder?

2. Who was the first African American governor in the United States?

Further Discussion

1. Why did it take so long for an African American to be elected governor in the United States?

Links

This Day in Virginia: January 13

Suggested Reading

Buni, Andrew. The Negro in Virginia Politics, 1902–1965. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1967.

Edds, Margaret. Claiming the Dream: The Victorious Campaign of Douglas Wilder of Virginia. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 1990.

Rabinowitz, Howard N., ed. Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.